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Hospitality industry stakeholders who host sites for online reviews or rely on review sites such as Yelp, Trip Advisor, Urban Spoon, or Oyster, may take comfort in the recent Ninth Circuit decision regarding the liability of the publishers of those reviews. See Kimzey v. Yelp! Inc., No. 2:13-cv-01734 (U.S.D.C. Wash. Sept. 12, 2016). But, there is an argument to be made that the protections afforded under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) may be wearing thin. As the industry looks for more ways to leverage data harvested  from online reviews, it is slipping out from the protective umbrella afforded to “passive hosts” of user generated content.

Keyboard with key for review

In the past twelve months we have reported on a Virginia case, Yelp!, Inc., v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, Inc., (“Hadeed”) that was closely watched because the case dealt with whether a business owner could unmask an anonymous blogger that posted specific critical reviews on Yelp! of his carpet cleaning company. This week the Virginia Supreme Court said, “No”. Hadeed had subpoenaed Yelp! to provide information in Virginia that would identify the authors of the reviews under a new Virginia statute, that requires only that a business prove that a negative review is, or “may be defamatory” or that it has a legitimate good-faith basis for believing that the review is defamatory in order to learn the identity of the reviewer. Hadeed presented evidence that could prove that the seven negative reviewers were not actual customers of the carpet cleaners, which a lower court found could mean that the reviews could be defamatory.

Hunting for a top-rated hotel or searching for the perfect dim sum restaurant? Chances are you will turn to sites such as Yelp, Citysearch or TripAdvisor to guide you through the mass of options most locations have to offer. As the Huffington Post recently noted, “In an increasingly tech-reliant world, most of us do not step foot in a restaurant or buy anything online without doing at least a modicum of Internet research.”

Hoteliers and restaurateurs have long known that positive online reviews equal greater occupancy rates, increased bookings, and greater revenue for their businesses: An influential 2011 Harvard Business School (HBS) study found that “a one-star rating increase on Yelp translated to an increase of 5% to 9% in revenue” for restaurants, while researchers at Cornell found that a one-star swing in a hotel's online ratings on travel sites equate to a 11% sway in room rates.

So how trust-worthy are those 4-star online reviews? Turns out, unsurprisingly, caveat emptor.

A 2013 HBS report estimates that the number of fraudulent reviews on Yelp rose from 5% in 2006 to 20% in 2013.

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Greg Duff
Editor
Greg Duff founded and chairs Foster Garvey’s national Hospitality, Travel & Tourism group. His practice largely focuses on operations-oriented matters faced by hospitality industry members, including sales and marketing, distribution and e-commerce, procurement and technology. Greg also serves as counsel and legal advisor to many of the hospitality industry’s associations and trade groups, including AH&LA, HFTP and HSMAI.

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